A year ago, Vladimir Guerrero hit the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time and finished with 71.7% of the vote, finishing just 15 votes shy of a first-ballot election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Based on the early publicly revealed ballots reported on Ryan Thibodaux’s indispensable Hall of Fame Tracker, the dynamic right fielder for the Montreal Expos and Los Angeles Angels will be getting a call tomorrow welcoming him to baseball’s most exclusive club. It’s a near certainty: on July 29th Guerrero will be on stage accepting his induction into the Hall of Fame.
When Vladdy gets his plaque next summer, it will mark the second consecutive year that the now-defunct Montreal Expos are represented by one of its greatest members, with Tim Raines having earned the honor as a member of the Class of 2017.
In addition, he will have the honor of being the first (of what will be many) position players born in the Dominican Republic to be honored in Cooperstown, following his countrymen Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez (both pitchers).
Cooperstown Cred: Vladimir Guerrero
2nd year on the ballot (received 72% of the vote in 2017)
- .318 career BA, 449 HR, 1,496 RBI
- One of six players in MLB history with a .318 average and 449 HR (Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Foxx, Musial)
- 8 times with a .300 BA, 30 HR and 100 RBI
- 9-time All-Star
- 2004 MVP with Angels (.337 BA, 39 HR, 126 RBI, 124 Runs)
- Career: 59.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) & 140 OPS+ (ballpark-adjusted OPS)
- Led league in assists from RF 3 times (10 times in the Top 10)
(Cover Photo: The Sporting News)
Guerrero’s Surge in the Early Public Vote
Based on the ballots revealed publicly as of the morning January 23rd, no player has gained more flipped votes from 2017 to 2018 than Vladimir Guerrero. Based on the first 217 disclosed ballots, 40 writers have switched from “no” to “yes” and not a single voter has gone the other way. This is in stark contrast to the early vote for longtime San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, who finished with 74.0% of the vote in 2017 (just 5 votes short of a Cooperstown plaque). Based on those same publicly revealed ballots, Hoffman has 14 new “yes” votes but also 3 flipped votes to “no,” representing a net gain of 11.
It is normal for any player who finishes within 5-to-6 percentage points of the Hall of Fame to blow way past 75% and finish in the mid-80’s in the subsequent vote. This is what has happened in just the last three years.
- Jeff Bagwell went from 71.% in 2016 to 86.2% in 2017
- Tim Raines went from 69.8% in 2016 to 86.0% in 2017
- Mike Piazza went from 69.9% in 2015 to 83.0% in 2016
- Craig Biggio went from 74.2% in 2014 to 82.7% in 2015
If Guerrero were to hold his current level of support at 94.5%, that would be the biggest second-year percentage in the history of the Hall (the current record belongs to Roberto Alomar, who zoomed from 73.7% to 90.0% in 2011).
Why is it that players who come close wind up vaulting way past the needed 75% in the ensuing voting cycle? The biggest reason is that many writers don’t want to be “the guy” who keeps a player out of the Hall by casting a “no” vote.
This line of thinking is explained by Detroit sportswriter Pat Caputo, who switched his votes from “no” to “yes” for both Vladdy and Hoffman:
“His WAR (59.3) (Guerrero’s) makes him a borderline Hall of Famer. He is getting close to being inducted. Again, and I’ve been through this in the past when players I felt were being overrated by voters (Craig Biggio and Jim Rice come to mind) were close, and I will vote for the player… Like Hoffman, I hope he gets in.”
— Pat Caputo (Daily Tribune Sports, Dec. 23, 2017)
Caputo’s flip was just one of the 40 reported so far. Other flip-flops to “yes” include known national figures such as Ken Rosenthal, Richard Justice, Joe Posnanski, Phil Rogers, and Murray Chass, recently one of the most curmudgeonly voters who returned a blank ballot a year ago, voting for not one player.
Here’s a sampling of the explanation of the flips into Vladdy’s camp from some others:
“I messed up and gave too much credence to his less than glowing career defensive analytics last year instead of going with my gut feeling about his offensive prowess.”
— David Albee (The Daily Lowdown, Dec 27th, 2017)
“I wanted to vote for him last year and am happy to have room on the ballot for him this year… I don’t know how much this should matter, but he was so fun to watch.”
— Sam Mellinger (The Kansas City Star, Dec. 27, 2017)
“It was a joy to watch him take mighty cuts at pitches no one else would think of swinging at… He wasn’t a great fielder and ran into a lot of outs on the basepaths, but the operative question here is the only one that matters: Who cares?”
— Rick Morrissey (Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 18, 2017)
“Vladimir Guerrero fell just 15 votes shy of enshrinement last year, and I was part of the 28 percent that didn’t check the box next to his name. That changes now… He wasn’t the perfect player, but he was one of the best hitters of his generation.”
— Steve Politi (NJ.com, Dec. 6, 2017)
If there’s a general dynamic within the baseball writers to push close candidates over the edge, why is Guerrero getting a massive surge while Hoffman’s is relatively small? The reason is simple. Hoffman was a relief pitcher and there’s a significant group of voters who believe that relievers are inherently overrated because they simply don’t pitch that much. Because of the specialization of the role of closer and the lack of innings pitched, Hoffman’s career WAR of 28.4 puts him in 26th place on a 33-person ballot. Speaking very generally, the writers who like to reveal their ballots early tend to be more analytically inclined, using WAR as a sorting tool. The writers who reveal their ballots later (or not at all) tend to be more “old school” who don’t need to see much more than Hoffman’s 601 career saves.
With Guerrero, although his WAR ranks only 13th on the Hall of Fame ballot, there’s enough statistical support that any writer can hang their hat on. Plus, for the old school “I know a Hall of Famer when I see him” writer, Guerrero looked the part of a future Hall of Famer from the moment he debuted in Major League Baseball.
The balance of this piece includes a couple of segments from a piece I authored in September.
In this updated version, I’ve added some additional statistical nuggets, some of which were researched and revealed (to me) by the Twitter campaign on his behalf (#Vlad4HOF). More than any other sport, baseball is a game of statistics. Despite a career that ended at the age of 36 and thus suppressed some long-term counting stats, Vladdy Guerrero keeps some pretty amazing company when it comes to the numbers.
Born in the Dominican Republican 1975, a little west of Santo Domingo, Vladimir Guerrero grew up in poverty and, as reported by Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, “drank from puddles and missed so many classes while instead harvesting vegetables in the fields that he stopped going to school after fifth grade.” From Jay Jaffe’s excellent piece in SI, “the family lived in a shack with no electricity or running water and, after a hurricane blew its roof off, seven family members had to share two beds in a single room.”
Guerrero, by far the best of four baseball-playing brothers, signed an amateur contract with the Expos in 1993, rocketed through the minor leagues, and made his major league debut in the fall of 1996, at the age of 21. Guerrero was Baseball America’s #2 prospect in the game for 1997 (behind Andruw Jones, also on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot). Vladdy became a regular player in 1997, his official rookie year, and, despite three stints on the disabled list, established himself as one of the young stars in the game.
Guerrero was one of those young players who had a “wow” factor from the moment he stepped onto the national stage, even a stage as off-Broadway as Montreal. With his height (he was 6’3″), his long arms, his quick bat and “swing at anything without missing approach,” he was a feared slugger almost instantly. And that’s just the “wow” factor with his bat. Vladdy had a bazooka for an arm in right field and, although his base-running skills were unrefined, he could run. In essence, the ultimate five-tool player.
In 1998, Guerrero had his true breakout season, and the first of five in a row in which he appeared in at least 154 games. In ’98, Vladdy hit .324 with 38 home runs, 109 RBI, 108 runs scored and a park-adjusted OPS+ of 150 (50% better than league average). By the defensive metrics on Baseball Reference, it was also his best season with the leather. The Expos franchise had been gutted after the players’ strike of 1994 and, after the ’97 campaign, traded Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez to the Boston Red Sox. So, the ’98 Expos were a pretty sorry bunch overall and finished with a 67-95 record, the first of four consecutive campaigns with fewer than 70 wins. Still, Vladdy finished 13th in the N.L. MVP balloting, the first of 11 straight seasons in which he earned MVP votes.
Guerrero followed up ’98 with four more superb seasons (he hit .325 while averaging 39 HR, 116 RBI and a 151 OPS+ from ’98-’02). He missed 45 games in 2003 thanks to a herniated disc in his lower back but still hit. 330 with a 156 OPS+.
Moving on after Montreal
All in all, Vladimir Guerrero had seven excellent seasons in Montreal (earning four All-Star nods) before departing for financially greener pastures, signing a five-year, $70 million contract with the Anaheim Angels. In 2004, now in the American League with a team that had won the World Series just two years prior, he immediately won his first and only MVP Award. He hit .337 with 39 HR, 126 RBI, 124 runs scored and a 157 OPS+. He followed that up with four more superlative seasons (averaging 30 HR, 110 RBI with a 142 OPS+) before an injury-plagued 2009 campaign. Now a full time designated hitter, Guerrero spent his final two MLB seasons in Texas (a solid year in which he made his 9th All-Star squad) and Baltimore. Vladdy couldn’t get another major league opportunity deal after the 2011 season never appeared in the majors again after his 37th birthday.
Guerrero’s escape from Montreal did afford him the opportunity to perform in October. His post-season record, however, is not something that enhances his Cooperstown resume. In 44 games, he hit just .263 with 2 home runs and 20 RBI in 188 plate appearances. In his one and only appearance in the World Series (with Texas in 2010), Vladdy went 1 for 14 (.071) with just two RBI in the Rangers’ 5-games series loss to the San Francisco Giants.
The Hall of Fame Case for Vladimir Guerrero:
Vladimir Guerrerro is considered a slam-dunk Hall of Fame player by a great many because of two key statistics: his career .318 batting average and 449 home runs. The only other players in history with that many taters and an average that high are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Stan Musial.
Ruth. Gehrig. Williams. Foxx. Musial. Guerrero.
For some voters, that’s all the research that’s needed.
If you loosen the criteria a bit, make it a career .300 average and 400 homers, you still only get 15 players: 10 Hall of Famers plus Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones and still-active Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. Chipper will get into Cooperstown this year with Vladdy, Albert and Miggy will for sure five years after they retire and Man-Ram would be getting elected this year were it not for his two PED suspensions. It’s still an all-time great group.
In the totality of his career, do Vladimir’s results match his legend? The principal argument in favor has already been made: he had a unique combination of a high batting average and home run ability.
- He hit .300 in 13 out of his 15 full seasons in the majors (the only times he failed were when he hit a mere .295 or .290 in two of his final three campaigns).
- He is one of five players in MLB history with over 400 home runs and less than 1,000 strikeouts. The others? Williams, Gehrig, Musial and Mel Ott.
- He was a perennial All-Star (8 times in a 9-year span and 9 times overall). He won the 2004 MVP in Anaheim.
- He led his league in assists from right field three times.
- Bill James has a statistical “Hall of Fame monitor” which attempts to predict Cooperstown inductees. On the scale, 100 points is considered a good possibility and 130 a “cinch.” Vladdy scores 209 on the HOF monitor. That’s better than Sammy Sosa and his 609 home runs and all but three other players on this year’s ballot (the PED tainted Bonds, Clemens, and Ramirez).
- If the proof is in how you’re viewed (and feared) by your opponents, Guerrero was walked intentionally 250 times in his career (5th most in the history of the game). The 250 IBB represents more than 33% of his career free passes. With his long arms and reach, you couldn’t safely pitch around him so there weren’t a lot of the proverbial “unintentional intentional walks.”
Some additional nuggets from #Vlad4HOF:
- He had 12 seasons with at least 25 home runs and a .300 batting average. The only players with more seasons like that? Ruth, Williams and Hank Aaron.
- He is one of eight players in MLB history with a career .318 average and .553 slugging% (minimum 3,000 PA). The others are Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx, Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Rogers Hornsby.
- The list of players with at least 400 career home runs and 4 individual seasons with 200+ hits is three names long: Gehrig, Musial, Guerrero.
- He and Gehrig are the only players in MLB history with 11 straight seasons of a .300 BA and 25+ HR.
- His 126 first-pitch home runs are the most ever since that statistic has been tracked (since 1988).
Have you noticed how many of these lists that Guerrero sits on puts him in the exclusive company of not just Hall of Famers, but all-time greats? It’s for this reason that some writers are flabbergasted that Guerrero wasn’t a first-ballot member of the Hall.
Here’s the counter-argument to some of those positive points about Vladimir Guerrero.
- In an era with a prolific amount of home runs, his 449 total is unremarkable, tied for 21st best in the last 40 years.
- All of the “lists” he’s on involve batting average, which is an overrated statistic. Guerrero didn’t walk a lot and thus, despite the high BA’s, he only managed 4 seasons with a .400 or higher on-base percentage.
- He may have had a lot of assists as a right fielder, but he also led his league in errors a whopping 9 times.
- Despite possessing five tools, he was, for much of his career, a two-dimensional player, a hitter with power and therefore, his career WAR (59.3) ranks only 13th on the 2018 ballot. He was a poor base-stealer (only a 66% career success rate) and, although he certainly could throw, he was mostly an average defensive player. Because of his right knee, he was relegated to being mostly a designated hitter in the last three years of his career.
- James’ Hall of Fame monitor is based on who “will” get in, not who “should.” It’s based on traditional bench-mark statistics over the history of the Hall of Fame, over-valuing batting average and not taking into account Guerrero’s relatively low walk totals.
- The 250 intentional walks can in part be explained by his years in a weak Expos lineup and some average Angels lineups.
Personally, I’m more in favor the “pros” than the “cons” of those arguments. There’s no doubt that he made a lot of errors trying to gun down runners but he still had all those assists. Advanced metrics, as unreliable and inconsistent as they are, were generally favorable to him defensively until later in his career.
Comparing Vladimir Guerrero to his Peers
Let’s compare Guerrero’s numbers to his contemporaries over his 10-year peak (1998-2007), using a minimum of 4,500 plate appearances for “rate” stats like OPS+ and batting average:
For the key numbers, if you strip away the PED-linked players, Guerrero climbs to 4th in WAR, 3rd in OPS+, 3rd in HR and 2nd in RBI.
One of the criteria that many writers use for a Hall of Fame player is to have been a dominant player in the majors for a significant period of time and, more specifically, if a player is the unquestioned best at his position for a significant time frame, that usually gets a HOF vote. So here is how Vladdy stacks up among right fielders in 9 key categories during his 10-year peak:
Well, here it is in a nutshell: for a ten-year period (among MLB right fielders), Guerrero is first in WAR, OPS+, hits and RBI and second only to Sosa in home runs and slugging percentage. He’s way ahead of the pack in RBI and this despite the fact that, for five of these ten seasons, he was anchoring an otherwise fairly toothless Expos lineup that was perennially near the bottom of the league in runs scored.
For all of the reasons described above, there’s no doubt in my mind that Vladimir Guerrero is absolutely a Hall of Famer. He passes the eye test and he passes the statistical test. When he’s inducted, he will have the honor of being the first of what will be an impressive parade of position-player inductees from the tiny island of the Dominican Republic.
In the years to come, you can expect the recently retired David Ortiz and the still-active Pujols, Adrian Beltre, and Robinson Cano to join Vladdy in the Hall but Guerrero will be the first. Guerrero will also be the fourth player in Cooperstown with the logo of the now-defunct Expos on the cap of his plaque (following Carter, Dawson and Raines) or he’ll be the first with the logo of the Los Angeles Angels.
He will also be the first player named Vladimir in the Baseball Hall of Fame and the second most famous Vladimir in the world.
Thanks for reading.